Last season, Karl-Anthony Towns tip-toed closer to league average on the defensive end, but to become a good team, Minnesota needs more. Towns is a generational talent on the offensive end, capable of scoring efficiently and in a variety of ways from all three levels. However, if he can’t maintain at least some of that impact on defense, the Wolves will never be able to reach the championship heights they crave.
To win at the highest level, you simply need your center to be able to defend the rim and in space capably.
Throughout his career, there have been a few small stages where he looks to have turned a corner, where the game seems to be slowing down for him and he is grasping defensive schemes and positioning at a high level.
The first was his rookie year next to Kevin Garnett and Tayshaun Prince. Despite being in their late-30’s and skeleton’s of their former selves, both KG and Prince were still high-level defenders and communicators who marshaled the defensive line and made sure everyone was doing their job. They gave Towns life defensively and were the main reason he was expected to become a fearsome defender after year one.
The second tantalizing stint was last season under the tutelage and guidance of Robert Covington.
During the 22 games that RoCo was fit and firing, the Timberwolves posted a defensive rating of 107.2. Had they been able to stretch that number out over a full 82 games, they would’ve posted the eighth-best mark in the NBA, a stark difference to the 24th (112.2) they ended up with. On top of that, when both Towns and Covington shared the floor, Minnesota was even more staunch, registering a 106.7 defensive rating in 568 minutes together.
It wasn’t just Covington providing all of the defense, either. Towns himself held a 107.2 defensive rating in that 22-game stretch. It’s not an elite number, but it’s a clear improvement over the 111.3 rating he put up throughout the season.
Much like Garnett and Prince of old, Covington is an expert communicator. He reads and calls out offensive schemes quickly, helping his teammates arrange themselves accordingly. It’s an invaluable trait to possess, one that he shares with all of the elite defenders around the league.
Having a general on the floor to show Towns where to be and when to be there is unbelievably important for this team. The 23-year-old isn’t an unwilling defender. He hears the criticism that surrounds him and he wants to silence it. His problem is that his technique and defensive IQ is still unpolished. When he is left alone to quarterback a defense he seems overloaded with things to process, resulting in poor positioning, over-eagerness and a lack of communication to his teammates.
With Covington next to him, many of those problems are alleviated, or at least reduced. Towns doesn’t have to worry about being the defensive leader for his team, allowing him to focus on perfecting his role within the system.
When he can focus on that, the results are actually very impressive. With confidence and a sound defensive understanding lining his tool belt, Towns can use his athleticism and long limbs to shine. Take the clip below, for example, KAT dropped perfectly in the pick-and-roll to combat De’Aaron Fox’s blurring speed, before swatting his floater and stifling his follow-up attempt with expert precision.
As you surely know by now, Covington isn’t just a verbal presence on defense, he leads with actions. Before going down, he had a legitimate claim at least for first team All-Defense. Off the ball is where he does most of his jaw-dropping work — namely launching into passing lanes and rotating off his man to poke balls away and stuff shots at the rim. However, he is also very productive as an on-ball stopper.
That on-ball brilliance is what helps Towns flourish. Instead of being forced to clean up the mistakes of an Andrew Wiggins or Jeff Teague, who let scorers glide past them at ease, Covington’s ability to fight through screens and stick to his man provides Towns with enough time to position himself properly.
Even when he does get put on a pick-and-roll ball handler’s back like Jrue Holiday manages in the clip below, Covington is a master at recovery. He gets back in front of Holiday, forces him to the baseline, and allows Towns to get into the play and use his tree trunk-like arms to pin the shot.
Towns doesn’t lack athleticism and he has above average timing when it comes to blocking shots. Since the two-time All-Star entered the league, only five players have blocked more shots than him. His problem has always been being in the right place to use those gifts to his advantage, so having Covington around to buy him a few extra seconds is priceless. If Towns can learn to be better positioned while simultaneously feeding off Covington’s defensive staunchness, he could genuinely become one of the league’s top rim protectors.
Thankfully, new president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas has made Towns the one and only priority since his arrival. He knows he has to maximize the big man’s window, which means catering to his strengths and wallpapering his weaknesses. Despite missing out on bigger names in the free agent market, Rosas’ bargain bin signings and draft-night trade should help cover up some of the cracks in Towns’ game.
Jarrett Culver built a reputation at Texas Tech as a switchable, hard-working, and versatile defender. He isn’t going to provide the same sort of resistance that Covington brings, but he is almost certainly an upgrade over some of the porous point of attack defenders on last year’s roster. Noah Vonleh, Jordan Bell and Treveon Graham all fall into the same category of defensive-minded acquisitions.
In an ideal world, Towns wouldn’t need help to make him more effective on the less glamorous side of the ball. At the moment, however, he does. At just 23-years-old, it would be surprising if he didn’t continue to grow as a defender like he has the previous two seasons, but for now, we have to work under the assumption that he isn’t going to become a stalwart overnight.
With that in mind, Robert Covington is the perfect defensive partner for KAT. His communication skills mixed with his on-ball mastery fit his center’s needs like a hand in a glove.